With frequent suicide bombings and assaults on Somalia’s hotels and military targets, the Islamic extremist group al-Shabab has proved more resilient than expected, leading President Donald Trump’s administration to pursue wider military involvement here as current strategies, including drone attacks, are not enough, security experts say.
Senior U.S. officials have said the Pentagon wants to expand the military’s efforts to battle the al-Qaida-linked group. Recommendations sent to the White House would allow U.S special forces to increase assistance to the Somali National Army and give the U.S. military greater flexibility to launch more pre-emptive airstrikes.
The U.S. is likely to find counterterror efforts in Somalia difficult and expensive, analysts say, especially with the recent emergence of fighters pledging alliance to the Islamic State group.
“The concern in Washington has been mounting for some time now. The Trump administration is simply reiterating what has been policy, with slight variations,” said Rashid Abdi, a Horn of Africa analyst with the International Crisis Group. “U.S. special forces are already on the ground. Drone attacks have been scaled up.”
Advise and assist
Currently about 50 U.S. commandos rotate in and out of this Horn of Africa nation to advise and assist local troops. The commandos have accompanied Somali forces in several raids against al-Shabab fighters in which dozens of militants were killed, according to Somali intelligence officials, who insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
Somalia, which has been without an effective central government since the fall of dictator Siad Barre in 1991, was one of the seven predominantly Muslim countries included in Trump’s recent travel ban. That executive order has since been suspended by federal courts.
Al-Shabab emerged amid Somalia’s years of chaos. A regional military effort several years ago pushed the extremist group from the capital, Mogadishu, and most other urban centers. But experts say that push against al-Shabab then weakened, allowing it to regroup and adapt to operating in the country’s vast rural areas. It recently stepped up attacks in the capital and elsewhere.
The U.S. has military bases in Somalia, although it has not publicly acknowledged them. They are often used for drone attacks against al-Shabab targets. One of the largest bases is at Baledogle airfield, a former Somali air force base in Lower Shabelle region where U.S. military experts also train Somali forces, according to Somali officials.
In the past year the U.S. launched 14 airstrikes, nearly all drone strikes, killing some top al-Shabab leaders, including Hassan Ali Dhore and Abdullahi Haji Daud, according to a Somali intelligence official who coordinated with the U.S. on some of them.
The attacks have helped combat al-Shabab but have not brought the group to its knees, the official said.
The main successes against al-Shabab have come from the 22,000-strong African Union regional force that has operated in Somalia since 2007. But the AU force plans to withdraw by the end of 2020, and cost is a primary reason. The annual mission’s budget has risen from $300 million in 2009 to $900 million in 2016, said Ahmed Soliman, an analyst with Chatham House, the London-based think tank.
Without the African Union troops, the fight against al-Shabab will be left to the Somali army, widely regarded as weak and disorganized. Building the army into an effective force will be the primary challenge facing the United States.
The U.S. military probably plans to step up training and coordination but not actually put more American boots on the ground in Somalia, Soliman said. The Black Hawk Down incident of 1993, in which two U.S. helicopters were shot down in Mogadishu and bodies of Americans were dragged through the streets, is a factor discouraging more direct U.S. involvement. Even now, the U.S. has no embassy in Somalia.
Al-Shabab in recent weeks has increased bombings in Mogadishu, threatening the security efforts of new Somali-American President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, during whose time as prime minister in 2010-2011 the group was expelled from the capital. The extremists continue to dominate remote towns and villages across the south and central parts of the country.
But a new security threat in Somalia, and a challenge to any U.S. military efforts, is the emergence of Islamic State group-linked fighters, who officials fear could expand their foothold beyond the semi-autonomous north. The fighters broke away from al-Shabab and declared allegiance to the Islamic State group in 2015. Al-Shabab sees the splinter group as a threat to its operations.
“It’s only al-Shabab that can stand in ISIS’ way to expand its areas of operation — Somali forces are now too disorganized to stop them,” said Ahmed Mohamoud, a retired former Somali military general.